Sarah Leinwand

Photo of Sarah Leinwand

Sarah Leinwand


Assistant Professor of Biology

School: Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Department: Biological Sciences



Neural basis of behavior; neurogenetics; molecular, cellular, developmental, systems, and behavioral neurobiology 

Research in my lab investigates how the brain is wired during development and how it gives rise to complex behaviors. We focus primarily on the maturation of neural circuits for learning. We seek to elucidate conserved mechanisms that underlie changes in neural activity, connectivity, and learning and memory abilities with age. 

Our research takes advantage of the powerful genetic tools, compact nervous system, and short lifespan of the model organism Drosophila melanogaster (the humble fruit fly). We employ a wide range of techniques, including state-of-the-art in vivo functional imaging, anatomical studies, targeted genetic manipulations, genomics, and behavioral analysis, to better understand the neuro-developmental mechanisms for learning.

Previously, we identified a novel form of ongoing, spontaneous neural activity specifically in the fly learning and memory center, the mushroom body, of young animals. Moreover, we found that young flies learn poorly, and their ability to form and retain learned associations improves with age. Juvenile hormone, a crucial developmental regulator similar to vertebrate thyroid hormones, acts transiently in the mushroom body learning center of young animals to decrease spontaneous neural activity. Critically, this hormone signaling is required for robust learning in mature animals. This work offered exciting insights into the maturation of neural circuits and behavior.

Our ongoing work builds on this foundation and addresses the following enduring questions about the development of the brain and behavior:

(1)   How do hormone signaling and spontaneous neural activity alter cell morphology and connectivity in learning and memory brain regions? (Anatomy and genetics/genomics)

(2)   How does hormone signaling improve learning and memory? (Animal behavior) 

(3)   How do hormonally-induced learning circuit changes refine neural representations of the sensory environment? (Neural activity in behaving flies)

Integrating the answers to these questions will explain how spontaneous neural activity and hormone signaling in young animals coordinate proper wiring of neural circuits, thereby producing long-lasting changes in how brains encode the sensory environment. Together, these actions profoundly shape animal behavior and learning abilities across the lifespan. Ultimately, our research improves our understanding of fundamental developmental processes, which may go awry in autism, schizophrenia or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

For more on current projects, to discuss how your interests might intersect with ours, and opportunities to join the lab, please send me an email ([email protected]) and/or visit our lab website at

B.A, University of Pennsylvania, 2008

Ph.D., University of California San Diego, 2015

Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of California Berkeley

Leinwand SG, Scott K (2021). Juvenile hormone drives the maturation of spontaneous mushroom body neural activity and learned behavior. Neuron, 109(11): 1836-47.

Li H, Janssens J, FCA Consortium including Leinwand SG, et al (2022). Fly Cell Atlas: A single-nucleus transcriptomic atlas of the adult fruit fly. Science, 375(6584).

Liu Z, Kariya MJ, Chute CD, Pribadi AK, Leinwand SG, Tong A, Curran KP, Bose N, Schroeder FC, Srinivasan J, Chalasani SH (2018). Predator-secreted sulfolipids induce defensive responses in C. elegans. Nat Commun, 19(1).

Leinwand SG, Yang CJ, Bazopoulou D, Srinivasan J, Chronis N, Chalasani SH (2015). Circuit mechanisms encoding odors and driving aging-associated behavioral declines in Caenorhabditis elegans. eLife, 4.

Leinwand SG, Chalasani SH (2014). From genes to circuits and behaviors: neuropeptides expand the coding potential of the nervous system. Worm, 3.

Leinwand SG, Chalasani SH (2013). Neuropeptide signaling remodels chemosensory circuit composition in Caenorhabditis elegans. Nat Neurosci, 16(10): 1461-7.

Leinwand SG, Chalasani SH (2011). Olfactory Networks: from sensation to perception. Curr Opin Genet Dev, 21(6): 806-11.

Xu H, Leinwand SG, Dell AL, Fried-Cassorla E, Raper JA (2010). The calmodulin-stimulated adenylate cyclase ADCY8 sets the sensitivity of zebrafish retinal axons to midline repellents and is required for normal midline crossing. J Neurosci, 30(21): 7423-33.